Michael McDermott announces rare UK tour

michael mcdermott

On his tenth solo album, Chicago based singer-songwriter Michael McDermott (The Westies) has delivered one of the most honest, daring and defiant recordings of his extraordinary 25 year career.

“This is an album of reckoning I suppose,” McDermott reflects. “There was a real cacophony of change going on in my life at the time… being a new father, losing my own father, leaving the city for the country, dealing with sobriety, grief, death, mortality, shame and forgiveness. It was a veritable emotional tsunami and yet somehow I had to navigate through it all. That journey is reflected in these songs. Willow Springs is the name of the place where I took refuge and had to confront a lot of things”.

Michael’s Biography

Michael McDermott’s story is the classic tale of survival, perseverance, love and redemption. The first half begins with youthful innocence, a dream-come-true recording contract, a classic debut album heralded by the media, and a downward spiral with seemingly no bottom. The second half begins with love and the woman that would become his wife, Heather Horton, their baby girl, and a collection of achingly honest songs born of new inspiration that are amongst the very best of his ten album career.

McDermott got off to a fast start when he released his first album 620 W. Surf (1991). The music media heralded him with comparisons to rock n’ roll’s godlike, “The new Springsteen…Truly singular lyrics…Like Dylan…One of his generation’s greatest talents,” they wrote. Pretty heady stuff for a 20-year old kid of Irish descent who’d barely travelled further from his Southside Chicago neighbourhood than Wrigley Field.

The music business pays attention when your introduction to the world is accompanied by the names Azoff and Koppelman.  As a young A&R man, Brian Koppelman heard the buzz that was coming out of the Chicago coffeehouse scene where McDermott was making the rounds. He swooped in and signed him to Giant Records, the label that Warner Music had just bankrolled for already legendary impresario Irving Azoff.

MTV, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, chart topping radio airplay, besieging label promotion. It was all there. A new artist could not dream for anything more. Even author Stephen King, well known for his affinity to quote rock lyrics in his mega-selling novels, wrote,

“Not since I first heard Bruce Springsteen singing ‘Rosalita’ had I heard someone who excited me so much as a listener, who turned my dials so high, who just made me feel so (expletive) happy to have ears.”

And then, as fast as it started, came the skidding halt. “By the time I was 24, I was over,” the singer-songwriter says. “Really, I was kind of over.” Maybe it was the hype, or the timing was wrong. Who knows? The music biz is full of stories of songwriting singers with next-coming honours that end with broken dreams.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work. McDermott acknowledges that he had something, perhaps a lot, to do with it. He was young, naïve, free spirited and believed the hype. With no idea how to reconcile his future path with his sudden dream-come-true life, and no one he trusted enough to guide him, he responded by going off the rails, living the rock n’ roll fantasy of drugs, alcohol, fast lane parties, strippers, mobsters, jail…you name it, he did it. He went out of control and scared the hell out of the people close to him.

Michael slipped so far down that Brian Koppelman, who went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter, admits that his first film, the 1998 poker cult-classic Rounders, carried a lot of his experiences with McDermott within its narrative. Matt Damon’s gambling protagonist actually shared the songwriter’s stage name (they call him “Mike” in the movie), while Edward Norton’s character, an out-of-luck ex-con with big debts to pay, carried the surname Murphy, McDermott’s actual birthright. Though they gave their hero his name, Koppelman and screenwriting partner David Levien both admitted that McDermott aligned more with the Murphy character, a notorious screw-up who just can’t seem to catch a break.

Between his own self-destruction and the recording industry shakeup that marked the mid-1990s, McDermott found himself without a contract and awash in debt and self-doubt.

“Throughout the years, I had continued to feel like I was on a mission, of sorts, singing spiritual songs”, he once said, “but never really feeling good about the other elements of my life.”

Understandably, he’s found positive inspiration in his wife and daughter and having at last become more comfortable in his own skin, scarred but smarter, McDermott is making more life-affirming choices. It’s reflected in his last two self released albums, Hit Me Back and Hey La Hey, which include some of the strongest and most profound songs that he has written.

In 2013, McDermott and Horton introduced a new band, The Westies, another slice of McDermott’s pie. More folk than rock, The Westies are a rootsy Americana band complete with steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and stand-up bass. The band recently released their second album Six On The Out, which is garnering acclaim here and in the US.

There’s another quote by Stephen King that suits Michael himself as well as the intended reference to his talents:

“Michael’s music, like Springsteen’s and Van Morrison’s, helped me to find a part of myself that wasn’t lost, as I had feared, but only misplaced. That’s why we love the ones who are really good at it, I think: because they give us back ourselves, all dusted and shined up, and they do it with a smile…Michael McDermott is one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock ‘n’ roll talent of the last 20 years.”

Although fame has eluded Michael, he has the rest of the act nailed, and twenty years in to his career he isn’t lost or misplaced, he has found himself, has no fear, he’s still good at it, and is all dusted and shined up and ready for the twenty years to come.

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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Artist’s website: www.michael-mcdermott.com


‘Butterfly’ – live in the studio:

MARTIN GREEN – Flit live

Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson
Photograph by Genevieve Stevenson

Cambridge Junction, 22 October 2016

Following its premiere at Edinburgh Festival in August 2016, Martin Green’s latest musical concept Flit, heads out on tour, starting in Cambridge. There’s a bit of a delay getting into the venue, which the staff member working the queue tells us is due to some technical issues. But, he smiles broadly, it will be well worth the wait.

It’s immediately clear that this show about migration is an ambitious undertaking that sets out to unsettle the audience. The set looms like a primitive cave of wrinkled brown paper – a flimsy and uncomfortable temporary refuge. In its midst stands an enormous 3D zoetrope with three reels. There is a human figure walking, then running. Another is a bird in flight. The third transforms from bird to human as it rotates. The reels are swapped out over the performance, using a variety of illumination techniques to showcase them in different ways (strobe haters beware). The thrum of the turning machinery lends a further dimension to the sound – it could be a ship’s engine, a lorry: the unseen machinery that migrants rely on.

Crew and band members appear without any fanfare, walking on in line, all dressed in removal men’s drab brown overalls. Apart from Becky Unthank, that is, who’s in an anonymous sacking-like dark brown dress. It’s yet another visual reminder that tonight is about movement, migration, instability and uncertainty.

Respecting the seriousness of the subject matter, the band simply get on with it. It’s a performance without any real casual chat to the audience. Audio clips are interspersed with Green’s family anecdotes, an effective blend of the universal and the personal. As he builds to a furious crescendo at the fact that the conditions that drove his grandmother from the Nazis are being repeated in the present day, there is real passion, a visceral connection that sends shivers down the spine. His howls of being “fucking angry” are set against a massive distorted tidal wave of guitar from Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai) And Adrian Utley (Portishead) – a wail of distress and rage.

The soundscape created for this project is a challenging meeting of electronica, including a percussive rack of handsaws, married with the howls and skritchings of electric guitars. Against this powerful sonic backdrop, the accordion and the sweetness of the singers’ voices seem all the more startling. Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes’s voices blend deliciously together, her huskiness a perfect foil for his smooth, rich tones. The often mantra-like repetitive lyrics form soundwashes to underscore Whiterobot’s animation which is projected behind – and sometimes even in front of – the band. Delicately beautiful, yet slightly sinister stop-frame animations of folded paper flicker, repeating the central motifs of the human form and birds in flight. Sometimes the figures meet up inside photo frames, vividly suggesting the lives and families left behind.

As it started, so it concludes, without encores or any attempt to lighten the mood. It’s not about crowd-pleasing, but about feelings. This project is meant to evoke sadness, anger, and empathy with the displaced. We need to understand the urgency of their need to migrate, leaving lives, families, homes behind them. The band simply walks away.

After a moment, Green returns briefly, but only to offer thanks to his grandmother, in the front row of tonight’s audience and the inspiration behind the Flit project.

If there’s any minor gripe, it’s the sound quality tonight. Guitars threaten to swamp some of the subtlety, audio clips seem muddy. Whether it’s teething problems, my seat’s too close to the speaker or whatever, it doesn’t really detract from the power and emotion of the performance. As we leave, we pass the staff member and tell him, yes, it was definitely worth the wait.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://www.martingreenmusic.co.uk/

‘Strange Sky’ – official video:

UB40 FEATURING ALI, ASTRO AND MICKEY – Unplugged + Greatest Hits (UMC)

ub40 unpluggedThe Unplugged album (along with the Greatest Hits compilation), by the band calling itself UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey, means that UB40’s current status deserves and requires a little clarification.

In 2008, frontman Ali Campbell left the band, followed soon after by keyboard player Mickey Virtue, and in 2013 by percussionist and vocalist Astro. In due course, the three of them were reunited in the line-up represented on the Unplugged CD. Meanwhile, Ali’s brother Duncan replaced Ali as the original band’s vocalist.

There now seem to be two versions of UB40, with some tension between the two bands resulting in a still unresolved legal dispute over the use of the name and some muted verbal sparring on their respective websites.

The Unplugged CD which is the main subject of this review is the work of the three core members of the newer incarnation of the band, Ali, Astro and Mickey, and consists of re-recorded interpretations of hit singles recorded by UB40, or on which UB40 members (especially Ali Campbell) were featured. The Greatest Hits CD, on the other hand, consists entirely (as far as I can tell – I only have promotional copies) of original recordings by the band as it existed for most of its life up to 2008, and which did, of course, also include Ali, Astro and Mickey.

First of all, I’ll look at the Unplugged CD: where an earlier version of a track is featured on Greatest Hits, though, it seems reasonable to compare the two versions rather than consider them in isolation.

  1. ‘Kingston Town’ revisits the 1970 song by Lord Creator which was a hit for UB40 in 1989 and also features on the Greatest Hits CD. The arrangement is essentially a stripped down version of the older version, with guitar taking the lead part and piano taking the rhythm part. The vocal part proves that Ali’s voice hasn’t lost its charm. However, the unplugged recording suffers from the lack of the heavy underlying bass guitar part characteristic of so many reggae recordings (including the 1989 UB40 version). And I don’t think it gains from the extended outro.
  2. Neil Diamond’s song ‘Red Red Wine’, like the older version, owes its reggae flavouring to Tony Tribe’s 1969 version. This update has a ‘toasting’ talk-over by Astro, as did the original version on the 1983 album Labour Of Love. The version found on the Greatest Hits CD seems to be the shorter, toastless1983 single.
  3. Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, like the original, has a somewhat gospel-y feel enhanced by the organ backing. It doesn’t reproduce the synthesizer parts or backing vocals of the older version.
  4. This version of Eddy Grant’s ‘Baby Come Back’ doesn’t particularly resemble the Equals version from the ’60s, but revisits the 1994 version by Pato Banton that featured Robin and Ali Campbell, and again features Banton.
  5. Elvis Presley’s ballad ‘(I Can’t help) Falling In Love With You’ was written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss, though the melody is essentially that of ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini (also known as Martini il Tedesco). This re-working follows the 1993 version by UB40 rather than Presley’s (or Martini’s!) – that version is included on the Greatest Hits CD.
  6. ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince, reworks the version by Ali Campbell (previously recorded for Radio Riddler’s Purple Reggae album. It’s not on the Greatest Hits CD.
  7. Sonny Bono’s ‘I Got You Babe’, originally a hit for Sonny and Cher and later a hit for UB40 with Chrissie Hynde, is here re-recorded with Ali’s daughter Kaya Campbell taking the female vocal part.
  8. The first UB40 original on this CD is ‘One In Ten’, a song of social commentary said to refer to a contemporary statistic: 9.6% of the workforce in the West Midlands was said to be claiming benefits in the summer of 1981. It does a good job of expressing the prevailing alienation and polarization of the time. The guitar part lacks expression compared to the atmospheric sax on the original recording, but the harmonies are as strong as ever.
  9. ‘Homely Girl’ is another reworking of a UB40 cover version of the 1974 Chi-Lites hit. However, the jaunty reggae arrangement has more in common with the Inner Circle arrangement. The Unplugged version is notable for substituting some in-your-face but smiley melodica for the subdued synth on the Greatest Hits version.
  10. ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’ is a Winston Tucker song originally covered on the Labour Of Love album, and not included on Greatest Hits. This also includes some melodica, presumably played by Astro, and it’s surprisingly effective.
  11. ‘Food For Thought’ was the first UB40 single (that version being included on here on Greatest Hits). On the Unplugged version, the original saxophone parts are approximated on guitar and the vocals seem further forward in the mix. While I miss the sax, I prefer the vocal balance here.
  12. ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ is yet another cover version, this time of a lightweight but very popular song by Eric Donaldson. The lighter arrangement for the Unplugged version allows more focus on the vocal hooks than the version from Labour Of Love (also included on Greatest Hits.
  13. ‘Rat In Mi Kitchen’ was apparently written by Astro about a rat in Ali’s kitchen… Both versions are entirely listenable, but the brass on the Greatest Hits version, including trumpet from Herb Alpert, does give it some extra oomph.
  14. ‘Tyler’, originally recorded on UB40’s 1980 debut album, is based on the disturbing case of Gary Tyler, who served 41 years in prison in Louisiana before being released in 2016. The older version isn’t included on Greatest Hits, but the Unplugged version works very well with its minor melody and plaintive melodica riff.
  15. ‘You Could Meet Somebody’ is a re-recording of a UB40 original originally released on the Rat In The Kitchen album, and not included on Greatest Hits. This is another track with melodica to the fore and pleasant harmonies, though the lead vocal is a little nasal.
  16. ‘That’s Supposed To Hurt’ is from Ali Campbell’s first post-UB40 solo album, Flying High. A pleasant end to the CD.

Many of the tracks on the Greatest Hits compilation were re-recorded for Unplugged, so I won’t consider those tracks again below. The remaining tracks, however, are as follows.

  • ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ was the follow-up to ‘I Got You Babe’. Unusually for this collection, it sounds more New Romantic than reggae.
  • ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ was written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers of The Miracles, and an early hit for The Temptations. This version, however, is closer to the catchy reggae arrangement by Eric Donaldson.
  • ‘Higher Ground’ is a UB40 original from 1993. Catchy tune and brass arrangement, interesting lyric.
  • ‘Breakfast In Bed’ is 1988 track featuring Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. It’s a cover of a song recorded by Dusty Springfield for her 1969 Dusty In Memphis This is a decent version if you don’t mind the change of rhythm, but for me Dusty’s version is definitive.
  • ‘Here I Am (Come And Take Me)’ is an Al Green song, but with an arrangement modelled (according to Wikipedia) on a version by Irving ‘Al’ Brown.
  • ‘King’ is another UB40 original: good harmonies and a strong lyric relating to Martin Luther King.
  • ‘If It Happens Again’ is another UB40 original, reported to have been written in response to the Conservative party’s election success in 1983, though that isn’t clear from the lyric.
  • ‘Bring Me Your Cup’ is also a UB40 original. Nice brass arrangement.
  • The last track and the last original on the CD, ‘Sing Our Own Song’ has a strongly anti-Apartheid lyrical theme, and provides a rousing finale.

UB40’s Greatest Hits has quite a few songs with which I wasn’t well acquainted. The combined package as a whole offers a good selection of songs associated with UB40. And as a standalone CD, Unplugged is a good introduction to the work of the Ali/Astro/Mickey lineup in the context of the older material, and may hold particular appeal for those who know their recent Silhouette album. But is it successful as a fresh re-imagining of the original recordings? In general, we’re presented with a version of an older arrangement, but modified to adapt to the more limited instrumental palate available to the smaller line-up. In some cases, it works very well – certainly I enjoyed the melodica passages more than I expected. In some other cases, the vocals are more effective than on the original recordings, though sometimes the phrasing seems exaggeratedly ‘reggae’. But I’m not hearing any complete recasts like, for instance, Clapton’s acoustic version of ‘Layla’.

David Harley

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://ub40.org/

‘Many Rivers To Cross’:

Robb Johnson live at Lodsworth

Robb Johnson live
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

19th November 2016

The last time I heard Robb Johnson live was the London Gentle Men show, an acoustic, thoughtful story of the Great War and its consequences inspired by the experiences of his grandfathers. This was very different – Robb the rocker, the man who could front a Clash tribute band. The My Best Regards band are superb. There’s the mighty bass of John Forrester; Robb’s son Arvin who looks like an angel and drums like a demon and Jenny Carr on a slightly cheesy looking keyboard which, due to marvels of modern technology, produced some wonderful sounds including the electric organ that underpinned many of the songs. Then there’s Robb playing a vintage hollow-body Les Paul; what’s not to love?

I noticed very soon that Robb didn’t introduce a single song by name which means that I took some very bizarre notes although the songs from My Best Regards are still fresh in the mind. His introductions were sometimes a bit cryptic but the story behind ‘Better Than TV’ is almost better than the song. Afterwards, I blagged a set list but there doesn’t seem to be enough titles on it. Robb did remind me that they slipped in ‘We Hate The Tories’ in the middle: thanks Robb, I got that one.

They opened with a Johnson classic, ‘Night Café’ followed by ‘Here Goes Nothing’, the title track of last year’s album, ‘Bay Of Angels’ and ‘Carrying Your Smile’. The first track from the new album was ‘We All Got Wings’ followed by ‘Suzy’s Party’ (another off-the-wall intro) and ‘Dear Franz’.  Robb is very disparaging about the folk scene these days which is a shame because folk clubs were, and still would be, receptive to his songs (although ‘The Mystery Beat’ wouldn’t be welcome at Cecil Sharp House, so perhaps he has reasons for his negativity) so ‘Sidmouth Promenade’ is a bit of dig at the middle-classness of folkies. Shame: ‘Hollingdean Lullabye’ should be sung every day somewhere. Their final encore was ‘The Magic Tonight’ which was an excellent summary of their show.

Ed Goodale
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Support for the evening was Ed Goodale, a fine young singer-songwriter from Sussex, aided by his brother Ollie on cajon. I was immediately taken with his songs, which is unusual because I normally have to take my time getting into a new writer. The cajon is a bit limiting over a long set, although Ollie is a very fine player and they need to expand the percussion vocabulary. I haven’t heard Ed with his full band yet so that’s next on the list.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.robbjohnson.co.uk/ / http://edgoodale.com/


A round-up of recent EPs and singles

noise-of-the-watersHICKORY SIGNALS are Brighton duo Laura Ward on vocals, flute and shruti box and Adam Ronchetti in guitars and percussion, their self-released second EP, Noise Of The Waters also featuring contributions on strings, banjo and lap. Produced by Stick In The Wheel’s Ian Carter, it comprises six tracks, a 50/50 balance of traditional and self-penned. The former kicks things off with a flute-led setting of a poem by James Joyce, the others being a spare, intimate confessional account of ‘Unquiet Grave’ and a shruti and violin coloured reading of ‘Irish Ways’, its lyric about the 17th century burning of fields and stealing grain given resonance with Ward’s dark and sonorous timbre.

Led by Scott Smith’s banjo, the duo’s own ‘Here I Am’ is a far lighter and more sprightly affair, ‘Bows and Arrows’ a more traditional sounding, stripped-back cautionary tale about the knowledge needed to make the weapons and snares to catch animals birds and fish that serves as an allegory for mankind’s penchant for destruction, Ward’s renaissance-styled flute solo adding to the mood. The final number is ‘Take The Window’ which duly satisfies the requirement of any traditional influenced folk release to contain at least one revenge/murder song, here that of a woman spurning her lover whose lengthy absence has “turned me into someone I didn’t want to know”.

dont-take-no-for-an-answerED GOODALE is a young singer-songwriter from Sussex who usually appears live with his brother Ollie on cajon. Don’t Take No For An Answer is his latest EP – a precursor for his second album – and the instrumentation is expanded by the contributions of producer Jamie Evans. I heard Ed live first, with no knowledge of him or his music and enjoyed every moment which, in my book, makes him a damn fine songwriter.

The songs here cover the range of his concerns. The title track is about keeping on keeping on despite setbacks and that’s important while ‘Sunday Morning’ is about waking up with a hangover. The major work here is the ecological plea ‘Beneath The Veil’. Ed suffers from Asperger’s, although you wouldn’t know it to meet him but his condition gives him a unique point of view. ‘Coming Up For Air’ is about his first trip on the London Underground something that you might imagine would be rather disconcerting. Make of all that what you will but here is an exceptional young talent.

flyHailing from New Quay in West Wales and signed to Charlotte Church’s publishing company, DANIELLE LEWIS has been likened to Karen Carpenter for the unfettered purity of her high vocals. Singing in both English and Welsh, she’s made quite an impression in her home nation, indeed two of her songs were used for a Visit Wales campaign, and was recently invited on to the BBC Wales’ Emerging Talent Horizons Project for 2016. Fly (Folkstock FSR43) is a new six track EP that gathers together her recent summery strummed, finger-clicking folk-pop single, ‘Anywhere Is Home’ with five new numbers. These kick off with the equally upbeat shuffling ‘West Coast Sun’, followed by the slower fingerpicked ‘About This Time’, a dusk-heavy number which suggests a Sandy Denny influence, whereas, on the other hand, the choppy strum of ‘Belong’ is more early Joni. Sung unaccompanied before acoustic guitar arrives midway, ‘Hiraeth’ is the only Welsh language track, but it’s the quietly anthemic, appropriately airy title track that strikes most, a touch of echo to the yearning, soaring vocals accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar pattern before closing on drums and string arrangement wings. Gorgeous.

thoughts-of-paradiseThoughts Of Paradise is the new EP from SAM JORDAN & THE DEAD BUOYS. We’ve already featured the lead track, ‘My Nirvana’, which sounds better and better with each play. ‘Favourite Messenger’ is rather lighter but still weird with a mostly spoken lyric mixed quite a long way down that breaks out into a more conventional song about half-way through. ‘I’ve Never Seen Her Fall’ is pretty and ‘The Stars Are Angels Marooned’ returns to a more conventional rock sound. I’m not sure where Sam fits in on the musical spectrum but perhaps that doesn’t matter.

Daria Kulesh – Tales of Ingushetia

daria in ingushetia

Dai Jeffries talks to Daria Kulesh about her recent trip to Ingushetia, her grandmother’s ancestral homeland, the stories that form the basis of her new solo album, Long Lost Home, and the significance of February 23rd.

The photograph shows Daria in traditional Ingush costume.

The interview is presented in three segments for technical reasons – we both enjoyed talking too much!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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Artist’s website: http://www.daria-kulesh.co.uk/

‘The Moon And The Pilot’ – official video: